Editor’s Note: In light of the novel coronavirus pandemic, the Supreme Court remains closed to the public. The building is open for official business only. March oral arguments have been postponed indefinitely, and filing deadlines for petitions have been extended. The Justices are conducting their private conferences remotely. Orders and Opinions are still being issued as scheduled, but the Justices will not take the bench.
Another somber week followed the last. What was supposed to be the start of the March oral argument session was instead marked by empty gallery seats and closed doors. In response to the ongoing spread of COVID-19, the Court postponed oral arguments, issued orders and opinions in private, and conducted its own weekly conference over the phone. As for its opinions, the Court released four of them. The opinions came in cases ranging from one that interestingly blends copyright infringement, state sovereign immunity, and a pirate ship (I reviewed the case for the blog here); to Kansas’ adoption of a specific kind of insanity defense (or lack thereof); to a race discrimination claim; to a jurisdictional question in immigration procedure. The Court also released a per curiam decision, and Justice Kavanaugh responded to a denial of cert. Here’s your brief for the week of March 23.
This past Monday, the Supreme Court in Allen v. Cooper struck down a 1990 Congressional statute that had allowed citizens to sue a state in federal court for copyright infringement. The case arose after a marine salvage company discovered the wreck of the Queen Anne’s Revenge, Blackbeard’s famous pirate ship, off the coast of North Carolina and recorded documentary footage of the discovery. When North Carolina published some of the footage in various media, the company sued the state for copyright infringement. The question before the Court was whether the Constitution gives Congress the power to rescind the states’ sovereign immunity from copyright infringement claims. Justice Kagan answered “no” with a 7:2 majority, leaving the company marooned. (For lovers of wordplay and maritime puns, this piece is for you.)
There is a principle in the legal field called “stare decisis.” From Latin, it translates literally to “stand by what is decided.” In layman’s terms—and in law—it means that a court ought to apply the same reasoning as it did in a prior case, and ought to rule analogously to its earlier decisions in similar cases. It is not a set-in-stone policy that entertains no deviation; the Supreme Court has, throughout its history, overruled a few dozen of its decisions. Think of Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, in which the Court held that racial segregation was constitutional, versus Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas in 1954, in which it held that racial segregation was unconstitutional. On Monday, the Court added one to that list, overruling one of its cases from 1979. While the subject matter of the case (state sovereign immunity) may sound anemic and technical, this Court’s demonstration—that it is not averse to overruling an earlier case—is anything but. For the ardent Court-watcher, you may remember that the question of whether the Court will overrule Roe v. Wade (the case in which the Court recognized a woman’s right to privacy in her desire to obtain an abortion) was omnipresent during the confirmation hearing of Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh. And while state sovereign immunity has virtually nothing to do with abortion, the five-member conservative bloc of the Court has now hinted that it is open to deviating from stare decisis. Here is my analysis of the Court’s decision on Monday in Franchise Tax Board of California v. Hyatt.